Saturday, September 6, 2008

Rick Wartzman's "Obscene in the Extreme"

Rick Wartzman is the Director of The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He spent two decades as a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He is co-author, with Mark Arax, of the award-winning bestseller The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Obscene in the Extreme plunks the reader down in the middle of a work stoppage gripping the cotton fields of central California in the late 1930s—an event organized by the Communist-led United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America. Whether this was a bona fide strike, however, was a matter of considerable dispute. The reason: If those staying off the job were deemed by the state to not actually be on strike—and were thus simply refusing to accept jobs being offered them—they wouldn’t be eligible for government relief. And that, in turn, would give the growers the upper hand.

By early October, the number of strikers had grown to seven hundred, and UCAPAWA rushed in an organizer from San Francisco to help the workers further their agenda—as well as the union’s own. UCAPAWA set up a strike committee, which upped the workers’ formal demand by a dime, to one dollar per hundred pounds picked. In addition, it insisted on having drinking water made available in the fields, the testing of all cotton scales to ensure that pickers weren’t being bilked, and an arbitrator at every ranch to help settle any disputes that might arise. The union also dispatched “flying squadrons”—automobile caravans filled with pickets—across the county.

The growers fought back by closing off roads, while the Associated Farmers collected license-plate numbers and compiled a blacklist of strikers. The employers’ strongest weapon, though, was pure intransigence. Associated Farmers officials refused to negotiate with UCAPAWA representatives, reiterating over and over that they couldn’t meet the union’s demand on wages. End of story. Still more maddening to the union, the Associated Farmers wouldn’t even acknowledge that a walkout was underway.

The virtue of focusing on Page 99 is that it makes clear that Obscene in the Extreme is about much more than simply what its subtitle might suggest: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Indeed, the book uses the censorship of Steinbeck’s novel as a window into a much bigger topic: the class politics of 1930s America.

The downside of focusing on this particular page is that it doesn’t give any sense of the book’s wonderful cast of characters. Nor does it necessarily convey the full richness of the writing—that this is a narrative that provides, as Anthony Lewis has put it, “a dramatic glimpse of a dark American past.”
Read more about Obscene in the Extreme at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue